In just three weeks, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has sharpened Japan's long-standing ties with Southeast Asia after being returned as leader of the world's third largest economy.
His scheduled visits to Vietnam, Thailand and Indonesia, which begin this week, were preceded by Deputy Prime Minister Taro Aso’s high profile trip to Myanmar and Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida to the Philippines, Singapore and Brunei. These shuttles demonstrated Japan’s diplomatic resurgence as never before seen in a region that over the past four decades has become so used to the ippon-style docile approach, focusing on economy and development.
Abe knew first-hand how Japan had slid down the ladder. When he was prime minister during 2006-2007, Japan ranked No. 2 as the global economic power with the prestige that came with it. Throughout the past six years, he has witnessed his country’s painful transition that included the rise of the Democratic Party of Japan (2010-2012), economic recession and the aftermath of East Japan’s earthquake and tsunami as well as the quick erosion of the self-confidence that used to be the hallmark of post-war prosperity.
His first and brief premiership taught him Japan’s foreign policy strength and weakness. To reinvigorate Japan as a force to be reckoned with, he decided to revive and fine-tune the foreign policy values promoting democracy, rule of law and economic development that his first-term government was unable to implement totally. However, this time a new dimension – security and strategic cooperation – has been included. This marks a policy shift in Japan’s post war diplomacy focusing on economic matters and shying away from forging closer security ties with Southeast Asia.
Although the Abe government will continue to concentrate on its economic assets, strategic elements will now form part and parcel of the new approach. Japan is rebalancing its relations with the ten Southeast Asian countries and at the same time attempting to identify and set priorities over key strategic partners. It was a far cry from 1977 when Japan famously announced the genteel policy of “heart-to-heart”. The four-decades of diffident diplomacy is no more.
As the pattern of high-level visits to the region this month revealed, Japan singled out Vietnam, Thailand, Indonesia and the Philippines as the four heavyweights – followed by Singapore, Malaysia, Brunei and the remaining countries with the exception of Myanmar.
Malaysia was left out due to a scheduling conflict. It was also indicative of Kuala Lumpur’s fading Look East policy which is increasingly tilting westward. Foreign Minister Aso’s post-New Year exclusive stopover in Nayphidaw and various economic zones served as a strong indicator of new Japan’s diplomatic approach to Southeast Asia. Given its wide-ranging reforms, Myanmar represents [to Japan]an ideal nation due to its underdeveloped economy, but with emerging democratic institutions and openness as well as the need to strengthen its rule of law. Japan is the only non-Western country that is willing and has the capacity to pursue these objectives. The desire to become more independent and break away from the past isolation has added to the overall sense of urgency and allowed Japan to reengage Myanmar in an encompassing way for the first time since the end of World War II.
In Japan’s strategic view, Vietnam and the Philippines have the best potential for forging new security cooperation at this juncture. Vietnam has the region’s second longest coastline of 3,444 kilometres, ideal for maritime security cooperation. The Philippines occupies one of the world’s most important and busiest sea-lanes of communication with its widespread maritime territories. More than 80 per cent of the crude oil and 60 per cent of the energy supplied to Japan go through this sea-lane. Vietnam and the Philippines are two major conflicting parties in the South China Sea disputes.
It should not have surprised anybody when Japan and the Philippines – overcoming historical bitterness – agreed quickly to put maritime security cooperation, especially defense capacity building and human resource development, as a top priority in their bilateral cooperation. To mark this new beginning, Japan has provided 10 multi-role response vessels to beef up the Philippines’ surveillance capacity as well as a high-tech communication system for maritime safety. A similar approach will certainly be put forward during Abe’s first foreign overseas stop in Hanoi.
As the first Japanese leader in ten years to pay an official visit to Thailand – Japan’s largest overseas investment in Southeast Asia – Abe’s one full-day visit is historic in every sense of the word. It helps explain why Thailand has been the pillar of Japan’s diplomacy throughout these years. Today, Thai-Japan relations are no longer the same as they were and are evolving quickly. Japan is not rising. Indeed, the region’s new strategic environment has already hampered its overall ability to catch up. Gone are the good old days when local media headlines were constantly reporting on the openings of new Japanese factories on a day to day basis. But one positive feature remains solid--people to people relations are stronger and closer than ever before. The outpouring of sympathy and large donations in kind and cash from the Thai to Japanese peoples in the 2011 tragedies was a living affidavit of mutual affinity. Indeed, this rare quality – absent in other bilateral ties – can serve as a template to build on and diversify future relations.
During the peak of Thai-Japan relations in the late 1980’s, former prime ministers Toshiki Kaifu and General Chatchai Choonhavan shared the same vision of having Thai-Japan form a joint maritime cooperation to provide stability and safety in the vast maritime areas in the region including the Andaman Sea, Malacca Straits and Gulf of Thailand – a big idea ahead of its time that quickly ran into regional opposition. Prior to WWII, Siam’s naval forces and combat skills were structured and trained by Japan’s naval officers. Now the hot spot and concern has shifted radically to the South China Sea. Strange as it may seem, so far there has not been any Thai-Japanese security initiative commensurate with their overwhelming economic relations. It remains to be seen whether the Thai-Japan summit can launch a new era for such comprehensive strategic cooperation.
A more vibrant engagement adaptive to the changing strategic landscape could be found in the ongoing Indonesia-Japan cooperation. Indonesia ranks second after Thailand as the region’s most favourite place for Japanese investment. Japan and Indonesia are eager to take up new ideas, especially in terms of political and security cooperation. Unlike Thailand and the Philippines, the two Southeast Asian allies of the US, Indonesia can and has pursued a more independent foreign and defense policy without the kind of suspicion and pressure put on the US’s treaty allies. Indonesia’s dynamic equilibrium is at work and would be exemplified with the intensification of maritime cooperation with Japan, especially in the capacity building of coast-guards in years to come. With the relaxation of Japan’s arms export ban last year, there could be a new avenue for both software and hardware security cooperation in the offing.
Japan’s rebalancing diplomacy comes at the time when Asean is facing humongous challenges in maintaining its centrality vis-a-vis external pressures and growing interests. For the past four decades, Japan has placed all its eggs in one basket, believing Asean solidarity could not be shaken or tampered with. That confidence was shattered to smithereens last July in Phnom Penh.
Tokyo’s swift response this time to the emergence of a new Southeast Asia is quite evident. It remains to be seen whether Japan can bring to fruition its diplomatic awakening, given continued volatile domestic politics and constraints. After all, the region’s security landscape in the 21st century is not preordained or monopolised by any hegemonic power.